Dosa on Fillmore
1700 Fillmore Street,
Dosa, a trendy Southern Indian restaurant already popular in San Francisco's Mission District, recently opened a second location on Fillmore. We decided to visit the new location for lunch recently, finding ourselves struck with a sudden urge for out-of-the-ordinary Indian food in an airy and attractive setting.
So what's the big deal about Southern Indian food? Well, it's drastically underappreciated in the USA. I spent some time in Bangalore and other locales in Southern India, and the food in these balmy stretches of the Subcontinent is very different from the heavy, meaty dishes of the North. What most Americans consider to be "Indian" food is actually northern Indian food - this is because most Indian immigrants to the United States hail from the Punjab region of India or more Northerly climes. Southern Indian food differs from its northern counterparts in a few drastic ways. It's much more vegetarian oriented then the food of the north, and is more reliant upon fish and seafood then it is upon lamb and chicken. It is a cuisine that depends heavily on rice, coconut, and chili, lending it a flavor that is more reminescent of foods associated with Southeast Asia then with India proper. This seafood-heavy and coconut milk loving style of cooking is especially predominant in Kerala, India's lovely southernmost region.
So why is Dosa called, well, Dosa? Easy. Southern India's most popular dish is the dosa, a large rolled pancake made of rice and black lentils. One can order a dosa just about everywhere in Southern India, usually filled with a mixture of spiced potatoes and vegetables. Dosas are usually served with sambar, a broth made of tamarind and toor dal, and a variety of chutneys, usually derived from cilantro or coconut. Dosas are by far Southern India's most popular 5:00 in the morning drinking binge snack, in case you found yourself in a pinch. Dosas come in a startling array of cooking techniques, flavors, and fillings, and it's that versatility that Dosa's menu capitalizes on.
We started with the chickpea channa (garbanzo bean salad) with onions and cherry tomatoes in a spiced lemon dressing - an interesting Indian riff on a typical salad. I never encountered anything much like this in India- a country with really terrifyingly bad water doesn't tend to eat a lot of salad - but this was a refreshing and delicately crunchy dish.
We sampled the rasam or "fire broth" as well, which is simply Dosa's version of a very common Southern Indian soup of tomatoes, tamarind, and lentils. It's a nice and authentic tasting variant on a staple food in the region, and I liked it very much.
Next up were Dahi Puris ($6.00), which are a very common street snack or chaat in the district of Maharashtra. These beauties were made with puris, a kind of puffy, crispy Indian fried bread. They're then filled with tart yogurt and a couple of varieties of chutney. Dahi puri is an excellent combination of creamy, crunchy, spicy and sweet all at once in the grand tradition of Indian snacks, and it's nice to be able to get these things in a more salubrious environment then a Mumbai street-stand. Though nothing really comes close to an evening on Chowpatty Beach with the sun going down, women in saris striding down the beach, and the dulcet tones of stray dogs fighting behind you as you enjoy your afternoon snack. Good old India.
This is a "spring" masala dosa made with the standard spiced potato filling and a variety of fresh vegetables. I was disappointed to find that this was more of a burrito-type dosa and not the gigantic plate spanning beast I generally think of when I contemplate dosa - the restaurant needs to make this plain on the menu. However, the bready, gently spicy flavor of the dosa came through nicely, and the crisp vegetables provided a nice counterpoint to the usual potatoes. I was very taken with the restaurant's version of sambar. It immediately filled me with food nostalgia for the stuff I used to eat almost daily in Southern India, and I considered (and should have) ordering another bowl. It came with some nice, fresh coconut chutney and a slightly sweet and tasty tomato chutney. You can order additional chutney varieties if you're a chutney freak like yours truly, and I enjoyed the eggplant and tamarind variants very much.
Dosa usually does offer one meat-based dish a day (as well as some chicken rolled sandwiches) during lunch, and today's special was baingan bhartha, a dish made with chicken and lots of spiced eggplant, served with yellow rice. This was nicely done and reminiscent of the stuff I used to eat at Punjabi dhabas, although it could have been more spicy. I imagine the kitchen can easily up the chili quotient if you ask first. Southern Indian food isn't really known for knocking you on your ass with spices anyway. I didn't encounter much in the way of truly spicy food in India - rather heavily spiced dishes - and I suspect the macho Anglo-Indians of old began the beloved British tradition of curries so hot that they can kill at five feet. But that is theory. I also am not big on lime pickles, which are typically used to add assertive heat to curries and other things.
After a couple of nice enough passion-fruit bellinis and an Indian spiced bloody mary (not my cup of tea, but my dad liked it well enough), we paid up and were on our way, smelling vaguely of Indian spices for the rest of the day. In my book, that's a good thing. Now if only some enterprising specimen would open a mobile chaat truck or two in downtown San Francisco. Takers?